The (Metaphorical) Birth of Israel

A while back I packed my kids up and went to visit my folks over a weekend, which meant I got to visit the church I grew up in. That week the pastor preached on Genesis 32, the story of Jacob wrestling in the night with a mysterious figure. I have to admit that I do not recall the point the preacher was trying to make. I am particularly bad at listening to sermons--something I do feel guilty about, considering I once was a preacher and know the frustration of working hard on a sermon, only to look out at a congregation full of fidgeting and glazed eyes. But I remain a terrible listener.

I do recall that the preacher spent a good bit of time telling the backstory of Jacob--how he came to be staying up late by a stream in the middle of nowhere. And I do like a good story, so I listened to that part. And also I listened when he retold the strange episode of a "man" appearing and wrestling with Jacob through the night. Even the most apathetic listener would be hard put not to be drawn to this story. Who is this "man"? God? An angel? A demon? Jacob's own inner demons personified? It's anybody's guess, really, as the text doesn't say. What is clear is that this being was well matched in strength with Jacob: they wrestled through the night up to dawn, it had the power to dislocate Jacob's hip with a single touch, and it conferred upon Jacob a new name as a result of their striving.

Jose Alain Austria,  Jacob Wrestling with God , mixed media on canvas, 2008

Jose Alain Austria, Jacob Wrestling with God, mixed media on canvas, 2008

Halfway through this incredible story it hit me: this is a birth story.

It begins with the setting: the dead of night. Ask any woman who experienced a spontaneous labor (as opposed to being induced), and I'd guess 9 out of 10 would tell you her labor began at night. This is when the mother's hormones get reset, and some tipping point is reached in the dance between the mother's body and the baby she's been carrying all these months, and the contractions begin. The relentless contractions, which are a sort of wrestling that continues through the night, and does not cease until the baby is born.

In this story and in birth there are waters flowing (so, so, so much water and other fluids flow freely in birth).  Jacob has shunted all of his wives and children and possessions just across the river before nightfall, and so in the story and in birth, there are people nearby. But those people are only incidental to the drama unfolding between Jacob and his foe, and between a woman in labor and the force of her contractions. I am a doula, and it is my job to support women in labor. I am usually one of many support people: her partner, her midwife or doctor, nurses, other family and friends. We are all there to try to keep her safe and as comfortable as possible, but in labor, it is really all up to the mother to find a means of coping, of not giving up. I can bring her a cool cloth or a sip of water, I can assure her that what she is experiencing is normal, I can talk with her about her fears. But she must find her own way to conquer her fears, to cope with the intensity of her contractions, and ultimately to give in to the process, to let her body wrest the blessing from what can seem to be a stronger foe. But this is a crucial point that many people do not realize: the process of labor is not stronger than the laboring woman. It is her body that is doing this. She is as strong as her contractions. She is well matched to this labor with which she wrestles, just as Jacob in the end is well matched to his adversary.

At the end of his long night of wrestling, Jacob wrested a blessing from his mysterious opponent. In birth, it is obvious that there is a blessing. It might be that our first thought is that a baby is a blessing, and of course, that is true. But in the Genesis story, it is Jacob who is reborn, and, though we often overlook it in our excitement over the new baby, when a child is born, a mother also is born. At the end of his ordeal, Jacob receives his new name: Israel. Just as a woman who gives birth is still June or Stephanie or Katie, she is now also known as Mother. And just as Israel is not only one man's name, but also the name of a people, so are women who give birth now part of something larger than themselves. We are Mothers, we span time and space, not bound by nationality or era. We belong to a new tribe.

And when we recognize our strength, we are fierce.

As day breaks, Jacob limps onward. Though it goes without saying that he has been psychically altered by this experience, he has been permanently, physically altered as well. Once a woman has carried a baby in her belly--stretching her skin and squishing her internal organs beyond what she could have imagined was possible--and then she has birthed that baby, her body will also be permanently, physically altered. Nothing she can do will bring her body back to what it was. She has lasting scars, battle wounds. Ones I believe she should wear with pride.

photo by Jade Beall, creator of  A Beautiful Body Project

photo by Jade Beall, creator of A Beautiful Body Project